Oh, don't you remember, a long time ago
When two little babes, their names I don't know
Were stolen away one bright summer day
And lost in the woods, I've heard people say
--Traditional lullaby


As a mother, she would sing it to her children. As a child, she would sing it to her pets. And whenever the world came crashing down around her, as it often did for Mary Leona Gage, she would sing it to herself.

Growing up in the Piney Woods of east Texas, her friends were mostly imaginary or four-legged - fairies, "weed people" and wildlife. She remembers a rabbit, getting closer every day to taking lettuce from her hand. One day, sprawled on the ground, arm extended, she waited as motionlessly as a 3-year-old could as it drew nearer than it ever had. Then a shot rang out. The rabbit collapsed in a headless lump. She screamed for a long time.

That night, the chorus of the lullaby ran through her head:

Pretty babes in the wood
Pretty babes in the wood
Oh, don't you remember
Those babes in the wood


The daughter of a once-wealthy landowner (and expert marksman) and his wife, Mary Leona was born after the Depression in 1939. She was still a toddler when her parents moved from Longview to Wichita Falls. There her mother worked two jobs; her father, paralyzed in an industrial accident, stayed home; and Mary Leona grew up.

And did she ever grow up - huge and alluring blue-green eyes, legs too long to fold under her school desk, a body that blossomed before it had any right to. She was drawing whistles from the soldiers at nearby Sheppard Air Force Base by age 11, propositions by 13.

Her beauty was part blessing, part curse. It was also her ticket - first to Maryland, where, representing Anne Arundel County, she was declared the most beautiful woman in the state, then to the Miss USA pageant in Long Beach, Calif., where, after she and a friend pooled the last of their money to buy a dress for the competition, she would be crowned Miss USA 1957.

Once the tears of joy subsided, Gage answered questions from reporters, easy ones at first. She liked to sing, play piano and cook, she told them. No, she didn't have a boyfriend. "I want to wait until I'm 26 before I become seriously interested in the opposite sex," she said.

It took one day for the fairy tale to blow up.

The competition's next phase, choosing a Miss Universe, was already under way when Gage was called before pageant officials. Allegations about her had surfaced. At first she had dismissed them, waving off reporters who brought them up. Now, though, she tearfully admitted to officials she was 18, not 21. And she wasn't a "Miss" at all.